Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bitter Sweet

It's a quiet night, midweek. It's been a tough few days. A tough winter. Bitter cold. It's one of those weeks where you feel like you just could be coming down with something. The cough is worse, the throat a little sore and the fatigue never ending. One of Lizzie's birds has taken to huddling close to the bird feeder for long periods of time. At first I thought it might be because he was sick but I really think he was using the glass to shelter from the wind.

I had bad news the week before last when I learned that a friend had died after a long and courageous battle with cancer. He lives across the sea and I've felt helpless that all I can do is offer words -- no doubt redundant -- to his wife, who was his greatest champion and advocate. I didn't know him all that well, but some of the best evenings of my life were spent at their dining table, sharing stories, drinking wine, eating bread and cheese. I would like to bring flowers. Or a cake. Just sit and be present. And I feel helpless.

And so, I have the flowers and I made the cake. In truth, the flowers (a lovely plant, really) and cake (a decadent flourless chocolate cake with only four ingredients) are to take to dinner when Rick and I join friends who recently sold their longtime home of more than 20 years and downsized into a smaller space. While I saw it during the moving process, they've since done renovations and I'm eager to see how it changed.

They, too, have had their share of struggles, most importantly the death of their son when he was 12. I cannot begin to imagine the depths of grief that accompany such a loss. Their new home is a step toward new experiences, not in any way leaving the memory of their son behind, but moving those memories to a new spot, waiting for new experiences and memories that will take them through the next two decades.

I look at the beautiful plant sitting in my family room. It's a white one -- I'm not really sure what it is, and I suppose it doesn't matter. I'm just relieved I haven't killed it yet. Between forgetting to water and the lack of good sunlight in my house, I am akin to the death squad for all plants that enter. It is why I take such good care of my Valentine flowers from Rick. Yes, they will die -- they are supposed to. But at least it will be natural, not from my own hand.

I'd love to keep that plant. The white flowers remind me of spring, something that they tell me will come here to Michigan sooner or later. At the moment I'm skeptical, but then I'm always skeptical in February. I just want this month over.

Only I know that isn't really true. I don't want time to go too fast. It seems to fly more rapidly than ever before. It's been nearly 20 years since Rick and I have been together and in that time I have seen the boys grow from cute little kids into handsome young men. I've had a good career, a boatload of sickness and a wonderful retirement. But it seems the years that will be left will bring changes. Hands stiffening from arthritis, knees that don't work the way they did before and who knows what will happen with the lungs. One day something will happen -- internally or externally -- that will change everything. And how I will long for that frigid day in February when I bundled up like Nanook of the North just to run to the store.

I'm sure Gretel wanted another day or week or month when she left us late last month. She was waiting for the birth of her two grandchildren. Gretel was a professor when I was studying theatre at MSU, teaching costume design. But we became better friends decades later, after her retirement. Her cancer was quick and unexpected and it turned her world upside down so rapidly it was a shock. Before she moved north to be with her son, we had some good visits and conversations, conversations that continued on the phone as she shared some of her holiday traditions, her hopes, her concerns. Gretel would grab onto this frozen day and hold it tight if she could.

I whip the eggs for my cake with fury -- five minutes, fast. They're large, light and fluffy. Then I melt the chocolate and butter for the cake slowly, add a bit of strong coffee and gently stir it together, pouring into the springform pan I felt lucky to find in the basement. (But I couldn't find the roaster for the water bath. I bet it's at Rick's. Well, a jelly roll sheet pan will have to do.) I take a good lick from the spatula and the leftovers in the bowl (precious few!). It's creamy and sweet -- but not too sweet. Bitter sweet. The day is bitter sweet.

I knew Bernie from my time at WKAR. She and her son were volunteers and you never saw two more dedicated people. When RJ was old enough, he became a hired student employee. Her heart was as big as her smile and there was never a task she didn't take on. When I saw her up north last summer, she said she expected not to see things through the winter. There was little more they could do for her cancer and she wanted to focus on the quality of life. Another life too short, I learned from today's Facebook posts. No, it hasn't been a good month for news.

Tomorrow (which by the time this posts will probably be last week) we will have dinner with our friends and share in their joy of starting something new. The conversation will be lively and I'll hear about their new grandchild, enjoy the warmth of a shared meal and a darned remarkable flourless chocolate cake, if I do say so myself! We'll see the house and leave full and happy for them.

But I think it's going to take me some time to really get my happy going again. Maybe I need to go buy some flowers. I suspect the Valentine bouquet won't last forever. Just the Valentine. Which, really, is the most important.

Photos of Judy and me and me with the cake by Judy Winter.

Monday, February 23, 2015

We Were Tougher Then

I suspect that unless you are passionately into winter sports, you've seen enough of this winter. The sub-zero temperatures, snow days for schools, icy and rutted streets. It's beautiful, to be sure. It is far too cold to turn into charcoal gray slush. But it's still too much. And for whatever reason, I can't stop talking about it. It's like the physical energy of talking about it will make me warmer and remind me it's not as bad as it could be. Is it? (Right -- I don't live in Boston!)

We were tougher when we were kids, I think. Snow days were rare -- in fact, I'm really trying to remember any prior to a big blizzard when I was in junior high school. We walked to school, bundled up like Ralphie's brother in "A Christmas Story," wearing thick snow suits, big mittens attached to our sleeves with clips, ear muffs or warm hoods.

We dressed to go to school, undressed when we arrived and put on the gear again for morning recess, the walk home to lunch (and back), afternoon recess and home at 3:30 in the afternoon. After a quick warm-up, we'd be back in the snow again, building snow forts or snow folk, having snowball fights (not my favorite sport) or sledding down our favorite hill.

We were tougher then. We actually liked it.

As I look through my old photos, it seems to me as though there is plenty of snow -- those drifts are tall ones. And while it's fanciful to believe it wasn't as cold back then (and I'm pretty sure the weather records would verify that), it was still pretty darned cold. And yet, there are smiles.

And there was a freedom, the freedom of being a kid. The freedom of play.

Somewhere along the way, that changed for me. I hesitate to take walks, knowing that underneath the layer of snow is a layer of ice, lying in wait. These knees can't take another hit without some very expensive and painful consequences. The already fragile and damaged lungs can't handle breathing in that frigid air without going into a coughing fit. And to be perfectly honest, I just get cold -- and I don't like it.

Yes, we were tougher then. Those of us living in the cold part of the world -- we're tired. Tired of winter, tired of higher utility bills, tired of listening to the radio for snow day closings and grumbling "They never did that when we were in school."  "Let the sunshine in." And please, while the sun is shining, any chance we can get above freezing?

Friday, February 20, 2015


"How cold is it there?" a faraway friend asked after seeing news reports of the frigid temperatures hitting the eastern part of the U.S. "Is it as bad as last year?"

Hmmm. Now that's a good question. For  us, the winter of 2014 began two days before Christmas 2013, when our city lost power -- in Rick's case, for 10 days. I was one of the few who didn't lose it (dilemma: Is turning on your Christmas lights like rubbing peoples' faces in it, or does it provide a little light of hope and cheer at a dark holiday time?)

Our wind chills had been in the -30s (F) and the daytimes barely above zero -- if it made it that high. Even after the power returned, the temps stayed cold and the snow kept piling up, creating records throughout our state and in much of the country.

So, I guess I shouldn't complain about -15 or -20 wind chill and official temps above zero. Like seven. Or four. Or maybe that warm day when it got to 14 degrees. This winter of 2015 is not cozy, to be sure.

When I see the news about what is going on in the East, I should be ashamed of being a wimpy winter girl. We do not have more than two feet of snow. We probably have about 18 inches. Maybe more, maybe less, depending on the drifts. My very nice neighbor is happy to earn a few bucks snowblowing my driveway and after our last foot-high snowstorm, they even plowed my street -- a rarity in my neighborhood. There have been no runs on water or food at the grocery store, I don't need to put a bookcase or chair to reserve a parking spot on the street and I can afford to heat my house. Some people can't. So, suck it up, Buttercup!

But it is cold, no getting around that one. Lizzie has taken over the house radiators. When I can't find her, I simply look for the heat sources and she's generally there. The birds are scrambling for seed. They don't seem to be eating the suet I put out though -- I have a bad feeling it is frozen and they can't get it to break apart. The snow crunches when you step on it -- not a bad sound, really. It would be rather nice if it wasn't so darned cold!

No one I know has touched tongue to flagpole this year but I suspect any moisture would freeze close to contact. You've seen the odd footprint photos in this post. (Yes, footprints, not abstract art). A recent visit to Detroit for the symphony found us parked a (very cold) block away -- really, a wonderful parking spot, free (can you believe it?) and on the street. As we walked toward Symphony Hall I couldn't help but notice these footprints (because I was looking down so I didn't step on the ice patches and go down myself!).

Footprints. Frozen on cement. I'm trying to figure out how this happened. Wet shoes touching on contact? The indentations of feet on ice -- then shallower parts of ice melted leaving the print? It is a mystery.

Yet they were magical in their own odd way. To me it said "Someone has been here before you, recently, on this side street in downtown Detroit where the media would tell you no one ever goes. They walked this street between Cass (where the 1967 riots broke out) and Woodward (once the gleaming main drag of a vibrant city that is trying desperately to come back. Maybe it was a symphony musician en route to rehearsal or someone who found the free parking and was headed to work. Yes, there are places in Detroit where people work.

It was a sign of cold, to be sure. But in its own small way, also a sign of hope. And when it's hard to get the temps above zero, hope is what we all need.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Loving Tradition

It started sixteen or seventeen years ago. Christmas was coming. Rick and I had now been together long enough to know that this was no short-term romance and I wanted to give him something totally unique, something totally from the heart. So, I made the first of what would become many poetry collections.That first book remains his favorite. It may be the least polished of all of them -- a pre-made journal of natural papers, hand written, very simple drawings. And yet, some of the poetry remains in the all-time favorite category.

In the years since, I have made tiny books, accordion books, flip books, pop-up books, you name it. Many are in pre-made journals, some in scrap books, some stitched together by this woman with a stitch-aversion. They've reflected moments good, bad, frustrating, joyful, fun and not-so-fun. The 2001 book was 9/11 and probably one of the most depressing.

After the first year or two I realized that with the Christmas holidays, I simply couldn't do a good job with it. Too many stresses, too much else on the plate. So I moved the schedule to Valentine's Day, where it remains today.

Fresh from my Jacqueline Sullivan workshops, I decided to use some of the techniques I'd picked up over the two days -- and one that I picked up on my own.

For the cover, I used a 140 pound 11x15 cold-pressed watercolor sheet, folded in half. The techniques on the cover included modeling paste used with (and without) stencils, painted in an earth-sky palette. The star, button and beads were affixed after the book was completed.

Inside, I used a parchment cardstock (8 1/2 x 11), folded and distressed with Tim Holtz inks. The poems were printed on a cream stock and glued in place. Each page was embellished with washi tape, lace paper, tea bag papers or photo transfers.


Now and then a button would be used -- like these vintage French buttons that reminded me of bicycle wheels! Perfect for the poem about Rick's bike hikes.

The "key to my heart" was one that blogger Linda sent when she was going through her mother's old crafting supplies. She knew it would find a good home -- and it did.

All in all, I felt it was probably one of the books that best exemplified the art part of me (and better technique than a lot of them).

The poetry? Well, no one is going to make me America's next Poet Laureate. Despite years of listening to Stephen Sondheim's clever lyrics, the rhyming is routine at best (though Rick liked "aisle" and "smile" in the poem about Kevin's wedding!).

And damn. A typo. I thought I got all of those.

But he was happy. And I was happy. And another year of joyful moments burst onto the page -- bringing smiles.

(Some of you have asked about the photo transfer paper. Watch this space -- I'm working on a post on that!)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Here's My Heart!

Here's a super-quick project you might want to consider for NEXT Valentine's Day. I'm posting it now because it is the best time to get the best deal on your supplies!

All you need is a heart-shaped candy box, some papers and whatever you'd like to use to trim it with. You can find those heart-shaped candy boxes filled with the most awful candy at drug stores in their Valentine section -- and right now they are at least half (or more) off!

I've been collecting these thinking to teach a workshop for the longest time. The workshop hasn't happened but I finally got one put together for Rick's Valentine's celebration.

First, draw around the top and bottom of the heart box on your chosen paper. This is old wallpaper. Cut out your hearts.Using the insert that is in the boxes (which you will then throw away unless you are giving away truffles), draw and cut out two pieces of the same or coordinating paper for the inside.

(You can also paint if you prefer or collage a variety of your favorite papers and images using a matte medium or Mod Podge.)

Using a glue stick or your favorite "stick-em" method, affix the papers to the top, bottom and inside of the box. Then glue ribbon or paper to the edge of the box.

Then dress it up with lace (hot glued around the edge of the heart) and fun flowers.

Add chocolate, jelly beans or your treat of choice! Voila!

(And if you're really nice, maybe they'll share!)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine Greetings

For you, something sweet.

Something fragrant.

Something pretty.

Something creative.

Something to make your heart smile.

I hope everyone is as lucky as those who will receive the flowers these three strangers chose!

May you be surrounded by the beauty of flowers...

And may this day -- and every day -- be filled with love.

Happy Valentine's Day!

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